Mozambique militias kidnapping children as tactic in northern conflict

Evidence that Islamist militants are using teenage girls as sex slaves, and boys to fight

People walk past a little shop in a camp for internally displaced people in Metuge in May. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP via Getty

People walk past a little shop in a camp for internally displaced people in Metuge in May. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP via Getty


Armed groups in Mozambique’s war-torn northern province are increasingly using child abduction as a tactic in their campaign to take control of the resource-rich region, new research on the conflict reveals.

An analysis by rights group Save the Children shows that at least 51 children have been abducted in Cabo Delgado in the 12 months leading up to January 2021, but the organisation believes the true number of kidnappings taking place is far higher.

Drawing on interviews with survivors and data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), a consultancy that tracks political violence, Save the Children’s analysis reveals a series of incidents where boys and girls were targeted, sometimes in large groups.

In one attack on January 7th, 2021, 21 people were abducted in a group, including six children. In that same incident, at least seven fishermen were beheaded. In another attack, on June 9th last year, 10 girls were abducted while drawing water from a local well.

Prior to January 2020, there were no reported incidents of intentional child killings or kidnappings by armed groups in Cabo Delgado, according to Save the Children’s research, published on Wednesday.

The new study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that Islamist militants in Cabo Delgado known as Al-Shabaab – “the youth” – are kidnapping teenage girls for use as sex and domestic slaves, and boys to replenish their fighting ranks.

Child soldiers

In a report released in April by the Rural Environment Observatory, a Mozambique-based think tank, researcher João Feijó said he believed the insurgents had abducted more than 1,000 women and girls so far, forcing many into sexual relations with their fighters.

Mr Feijó said the report, Characterisation and Social Organisation of Machababos [Al-Shabaab] from the Discourses of Kidnapped Women – based on interviews with 23 women who escaped their kidnappers – found that “young and attractive girls” were targeted by the insurgents.

“This report tells the story of those who ran away but doesn’t tell the story of those who are still there or who have been trafficked,” he said. “Their voices are silent.”

In an attack by insurgents last year on Mocímboa da Praia, one of Cabo Delgado’s small coastal towns, more than 300 women and girls were forced into trucks at gunpoint and taken away, according to interviewees. “These kinds of numbers would be a major logistic problem for the insurgents, so I believe that some girls have been trafficked,” Mr Feijó said.

Interviewees also described how abducted teenage boys were trained to use machetes and firearms.

Following an attack in March by Al-Shabaab on the port town of Palma in Cabo Delgado’s far north, the United Nations revealed that survivors had claimed child soldiers were involved in committing atrocities, including beheadings, during the offensive.

At least 2,852 civilians, militants and soldiers have died so far in the four-year-old insurgency under way in Cabo Delgado, according to Acled’s latest figures.

In addition, more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced by fighting in the province, the United Nations says.

Al-Shabaab is seeking to establish a caliphate in the region, according to experts.